10/7/13: Samsung Shape’s integration of TuneIn reinvents the radio set

Brad Hill
October 7, 2013 - 10:15am

Samsung, whose products increasingly foster the untethered lifestyle, has come out with a wireless home sound system called Shape. It is so-called because the shape of Shape is … shapely. Most reviews compare Shape to Sonos, which, while nicely shaped in its own right, similarly streams Internet radio and locally stored music throughout a home. Both systems hook into the home’s WiFi, are controlled by smartphone apps, and can multitask -- which means different rooms can hear different streams, playlists, albums, etc..

The smartphone app which serves as the remote control for Shape comes with a few services pre-installed: Pandora, Rhapsody, and TuneIn. Those selections niftily cover a wide service spectrum: Pandora for pureplay Internet radio; Rhapsody for subscription-only interactive music collection; and TuneIn for aggregated terrestrial radio stations.

That last point is the most interesting -- in a device that resembles radio, and is meant to replace the radio set as a household appliance, AM/FM is represented by a digital streaming platform.

As such, Shape (and Sonos, which also makes TuneIn easily accessible), position AM/FM in the life of a mobile-centric, lean-in consumer. Shape and Sonos are receivers of a sort, but the received medium is an Internet signal over WiFi, enabling a incongruent mix of formats: downloaded songs stored on a computer (or in Amazon’s cloud service in the case of Sonos), playlists maintained on a discovery service (Rhapsody), IP-delivered AM/FM webcasts, and -- crucially -- time-shifted radio programming (both on TuneIn).

Shape and Sonos encourage users, and force programmers, to think of consumable content as liberated from rigid delivery formats and schedules. Audio is granularized and liquified. In one RAIN household, TuneIn is used primarily to hear NPR program podcasts, detached from the original broadcast schedule. That use is gradually displacing radio sets.

Products like Shape, when paired with new content platforms like TuneIn, strive to reinvent not only technology (in this case radio), but also consumer behavior, while preserving content programming, and even improving access to it.

Brad Hill
October 7, 2013 - 10:15am

Earbits, an indie-music Internet radio platform, has operated since late 2011 on the web and in Android mobile devices. Now it has launched its first Apple iOS app, refreshing interest in its unique artist-reward system.

Promoting itself as “Independent radio with no commercials,” earbits removes money from its relationship with users, while also paying its catalog artists with social currency such as newsletter signups, song tweets, and Facebook shares.

Earbits offers typical genre-based, lean-back listening with a few hundred house channels. There is no artist-seeded functionality as in Pandora or iTunes Radio. You can skip tracks, backward and forward. The stream is completely uninterrupted. On-demand listening is available throughout the catalog, in exchange for accumulating points for socially supporting artists. (More on that in a minute.)

The music-discovery value of Earbits is based on the curated indie-artist catalog, which is fractional by iTunes Radio standards -- somewhere north of 100,000 tracks from 10,000 artists represented by 500-plus labels. In contrast, iTunes Radio has its long arms around 30-million tracks, and Pandora’s slow-growing music genome provides over a million. But the tiny Earbits pool can be startlingly refreshing when nearly every track is a new discovery, which is RAIN’s experience.

Earbits is partly a musician marketing service. All interactive music platforms sing that song to some extent, with a chorus that repeats, “When this gets bigger, you’ll get some real money.” In a low-cost music market often criticized by creators for its grain-of-sand royalty payouts, the promise of a grander scale can seem like a receding mirage to artists and bands trying to monetize their recordings. In that context, and in a marketing realm that exists mainly online, the very concept of currency is subject to reinvention.

Earbits reinvents “payment” as social actions that directly support a closer relationship between fan and band. The point of Earbits, from the artist perspective, is fan acquisition, not financial gain. Accordingly, the Earbits app has built-in artist newsletter sign-ups, Facebook “I’m listening to” sharing, and Twitter following. The specific range of actions is configurable by the band.

On the user end, completing an artist-support action bestows Earbits currency called Groovies. (The name is rather retro-hippie in our view.) You start with 500 groovies for installing the app (or launching it in a desktop browser) and signing in with Facebook. Auto-sharing is specifically avoided (this ain’t Spotify), but available on every track played. Sign up for the band newsletter? Get 50 Groovies. Share the track on Facebook for 100 Groovies.

For the user, Groovies enable on-demand listening, at 10 G’s per track. Users can feel good about streaming a band’s latest album, because they paid for the access by virally promoting the artist. Earbits promises expanded Groovies functionality in the future, as a key to unlock app features.

Earbits’ PR framing of the Groovies system is not unlike that of the big players in ambition and self-importance: “Groovies are the currency that’s going to change the way people access and pay for music, and it’s going to create massive, sustainable careers for thousands of musicians.” At its current scale, Earbits is singing its own refrain of “When this gets bigger…” In the meantime, the listening is fresh, the quality high, the app unique, and the artist proposition is tuned to marketing reality in the digital era.

Brad Hill
October 7, 2013 - 10:15am

Crossing ecosystem boundaries can be as difficult as traveling across national borders.

Google Music (both the download store and the All Access streaming-music app) is soon venturing into hostile fanboy territory by distributing its service to Apple mobile users. Engadget reports that Google will produce an iOS app later this month. It will be interesting to track uptake. One clear loyalty point in Apple’s ecosystem is the iTunes network of buying, streaming, and listening. But ubiquity is a good strategy as users cross boundaries more than media brands want them to. People who like Android phones, for example, but prefer Apple’s iPad for a tablet experience, want to carry their music with them across devices.

Will Apple reciprocate with an app in the Android storeSorry, that wasn’t a serious question.

But Apple is venturing geographically, if you believe sightings of a job listing for an iTunes Radio music programmer in Canada. The listing (which has disappeared after first sighting) calls for a cross-genre music expert with knowledge of the local music scene. No matter when it happens, Apple’s global expansion of iTunes Radio is only a matter of time.